Quang Ngo was 14 when, after seeing the respect accorded to a monk who visited his village in rural Vietnam, he decided the monastic life was for him, and went to live in his local temple shortly after. Quang Thang was 16 when he saw a monk caring for people at his local hospital in Hue, and likewise decided that that was what he wanted to do with his life.
Now, like many other aspiring monks from Vietnam and elsewhere, they are living in Thailand and studying to be full-time monks. During the week they study at Ayutthaya’s world-renowned Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University (I suspect the first week of study is spent learning how to pronounce the university’s name), and from Friday to Sunday they are based at Wat Khantararam, a small temple in Bangkok’s wonderful Talat Phlu district.
Life for foreign monks isn’t easy. Besides their four days a week of study (for which they have to prepare by learning to speak and write fluent Thai), their life at the temple is hard – up at 5am every day to clean the temple, then out on the street collecting alms and donations (whilst foreign monks get free accommodation at temples, they have to pay their own study and living costs), and then back to the temple for daily monk duties including attending funeral, wedding and blessing ceremonies.
It’s a life of sacrifice – monks aren’t allowed to drink alcohol, have girlfriends/wives or do most of the things that we take for granted. But Thang, Ngo and the other monks we meet during our visit to their temple all have the look of contented men.
We spend the morning with them, watching as they conduct a funeral at their own temple before moving onto nearby Wat Paknam, one of Bangkok’s biggest temples and a centre for foreign monks and meditation classes. We go there by taxi, and I notice that Bangkok taxi drivers always stop for monks and are happy to take them wherever they want to go – one of the advantages of the monastic life!
It’s fascinating to see the reverence shown to the monks (and by extension, us as their guests) as we walk through the alleyways of Talat Phlu, and it’s likewise interesting to see how happy Ngo and Thang seem to be with their life – for us the zen-like monk who has given up his possessions for a simpler life has become a bit of a cliche, so it’s heartening to meet the real thing, and, were it not for the 5am starts, I’d be almost tempted to join them.
I’m a confirmed atheist and generally take a dim view of religion, but there’s no denying the role Buddhism plays in our everyday life here in Thailand – being married to a devout Buddhist we had monks at our wedding in 2013, have a small shrine at home and regularly attend festivals at our local temple (though in my case it’s usually to take pictures or just connect with the local community). And after living here for over three years, it’s nice to meet some monks and get an insider view at how they live, and why they do what they do – and get some intimate pictures too of course.